To be wrong can be a terrifying experience.
Most of us desire to be “good people,” and because “wrong” is so often conflated with “bad,” being wrong too many times threatens our ability to claim what we so desperately desire to be.
And activist spaces especially expose this fear.
Most of them function on the premise that there is so much of the world that is wrong – and that all of it must be uncovered and fought against. As part of the world, this means that much of what we do is also wrong. And so, surrounding oneself with activists means a lot of finger pointing, calling out, and feeling the need to hold ourselves and each other accountable – ostensibly so that we can all do better together.
It doesn’t always work out that way, though.
The deep fear of being “wrong” leads to what I like to call “the cycle of call-out violence,” wherein calling out doesn’t effectively lead to accountability or community progress.
Because both those noticing the problematic behaviors of others and the people committing those behaviors can’t reckon in any healthy way with anyone being wrong, we often call out and respond to call outs in ways that are only destructive.
Since we’ve internalized the idea that to be wrong is completely damning, the person calling out has no faith in the ability of the person being called out to rectify his behavior, and she must distance herself from that person as much as possible – generally by way of thorough condemnation – lest she be wrong, too.
This does not lead to accountability, but to “punishing one another,” as Maisha Z. Johnson notes in her piece “6 Signs Your Call-Out Isn’t Actually About Accountability.”
On the flipside, those who are being called out fear being wrong so much that they can never own it, leading to an inability to address their mistakes and continuing to do violence to others.
It’s a cycle that most of us have been a part of too often, so much so that it has turned a lot of us away from activist spaces altogether.
But it’s important that we not view the problem as one-sided.
Yes, acknowledging oppression matters more than an oppressor’s hurt feelings. But this doesn’t excuse abusing people for making mistakes. Yes, calling out can be malicious and destructive, but a lot of the time, we point to this fact to obscure another reality: that sometimes we need to be called out. Sometimes even intensely.
I’ve made many mistakes in my approaches to fighting oppressive systems, and I would still be doing many of those things today if I weren’t called out. There were tons of times when I needed a tough approach, and if I weren’t defended against strongly, I would still be harming innocent people even more than I do today.
This isn’t to excuse the way we throw each other away and or how we don’t allow room for mistakes, but rather, to say that allowing room for mistakes means we also have to be open to the possibility of making them.
And if we’re making mistakes, it’s necessary that people point them out.
So here are six ways to tell if you might deserve to be called out for your behavior.
1. ‘Tone’ Is Being Conflated with ‘Effectiveness’
Very often, we criticize the call-out by sweepingly defining it as ineffective. So many of us feel as though angrily attacking others for their mistakes automatically negates any ability to address them.
It’s true that anger can sometimes be destructive. But it’s important to realize that it’s a very real and valid emotion. Just because someone expresses anger doesn’t mean that love isn’t present, any more than when expressing any other emotion.
The first time my mother caught me sneaking out of the house when I was a teenager, she was angry with me. She spoke to me sternly. Harshly, even. She did not parse words. I was wrong for endangering myself and putting her in that position, and she did not equivocate this.
Her “calling me out” was not abuse. It wasn’t malicious. It was her being a human being with real emotions. And I needed to see how I affected her to understand what this meant to her.
When we deny that someone can have a harsh tone and still come from a place of love – a place that is constructive – we are denying people their full range of humanity.
Anger isn’t the opposite of care. And it’s important that we allow people all of their emotions even as we guard against maliciousness.
If we’re equating anger or one’s “tone” with inherently doing something wrong or being ineffective, we’re probably missing the most important parts of the message and should work on paying better attention.
2. You’ve Been Approached About This Behavior Before
If you’ve been confronted about your behavior before – publicly or privately – but do it again, there’s a good chance that folks are just trying a different approach when they call you out.
Importantly, softness can be just as ineffective as harshness, and some people might respond better to one than the other. Being too soft can also cloud the seriousness of the situation or obscure how affected the other person truly is.
More importantly, this may indicate that you’re unable to deal with the issue. You may need to take some time on your own to confront what’s stopping you from dealing with it before engaging with others again.
A call-out can also be a wakeup call.
One of the things I particularly struggled with early on (and still do, hopefully to a lesser degree) is speaking over other marginalized communities about their struggles, or -splaining. Zealous about being an “ally” (or, more likely, being seen as one), I felt I needed to inject myself into every conversation in order to defend them.
It wasn’t until a friend called me out over a long and intense conversation that I truly understood that the problem wasn’t that I needed guidance, but that I needed to dig deep to uncover where these issues were coming from on my own.
I just truly wasn’t prepared to have these conversations because I hadn’t taken the time to find the tools – and no one could find them for me. I needed to address my own savior complex, and teaching me what I was doing wrong just wasn’t going to get to the bottom of that.
“Get the fuck out of this space!” can be a mean person yelling at a vulnerable one. Or it can be that you need to get the fuck out of that space.
If you constantly come up against the same critique, chances are it’s the latter.
3. No One From Your Privileged* Group Has Pulled You Aside (Or You Haven’t Allowed It)
If we’re members of a group with social capital over others, we’re more likely to listen to the folks in that group with us than the people we’re wielding power over. It’s actually these folks’ responsibility to hold us accountable – not the responsibility of the person being abused (though out of compassion, they may attempt to).
I don’t take too much time explaining race to white people. Among other reasons, I have found it an ineffective use of my energy and would rather spend it doing other things. I do have a few close white folks who offer their energy to do this instead (shout out to Rachael and Cassandra), and I appreciate them for it.
This doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be great if white people understood race (and then destroyed it), but if you aren’t open to allowing your people to hold you accountable, or if they’re not holding you accountable, there often just isn’t much I can do.
Instead, I might make sure you know that my space isn’t the space for you – sternly.
Once you’ve demonstrated an ability to be held accountable productively, the way you’re dealt with can and should shift. In the meantime, a marginalized person’s call-out may just signal their refusal to allow you into their space until accountability can be had, which is perfectly valid.
4. Your Hurt Feelings Take Precedence Over the Hurt You Caused
It’s perfectly okay to feel bad about being called out.
Sometimes, call-outs can be intense and based on a legitimate mistake or misunderstanding. Sometimes the call-out can come from a malicious place – and sometimes, although not always, it’s easy to recognize this.
All that said, those very real concerns should never be used to ignore the problems your actions have caused. “I didn’t mean to hurt you” may very well be true, but it’s also your responsibility to rectify any hurt you’ve caused.
Intentions are important, but they don’t matter more than results.
If you’re letting your hurt feelings take precedence over the hurt you’ve caused, you’re most likely missing the point of what’s being said. It’s important to fix this before moving forward, and a call-out can help you with that.
5. You Have a Hard Time Being Wrong
The “cycle of call-out violence” relies on the inability to deal with “wrong.”
For the person being called out, it’s often hard to even admit to being wrong in the first place. Admittedly, this can be based on the very real fear of being torn apart. If you accept being wrong, the person calling you out might not accept you either and will do everything they can to get rid of you.
But ending the cycle means that we all need to both use and receive the call-out in a way that can be effective – by providing space to acknowledge the problem (even harshly), as well as to work toward fixing it.
Once I realized I had a –splaining problem rooted in a sort of savior complex, I began to understand that what felt like call-outs – dangerous and violent – were actually benign attempts at people trying to teach me. And this was exactly what I claimed to want them to do. The problem wasn’t that people weren’t trying to teach me in those moments – it was that I wasn’t teachable.
If you find yourself resistant to every call-out regardless of the validity, there’s a chance that the problem is a resistance to being wrong.
Instead of running away, it may be time to embrace the mistake and see how you might move forward.
6. There Are Serious Immediate Harmful Effects of Your Behavior
Sometimes a call-out is just a signal that what you’re doing is very harmful and needs to stop immediately. The intensity of the pushback might just be done so as to match the intensity of the mistake.
I used to carry around very harmful views about trans people. But with violence against trans folks continuing at epidemic levels, we can only do so much theoretical debating against blatantly antagonistic viewpoints.
I could have benefitted from being called out more on this, as I’m sure my early high school antics contributed to very real atmospheres of terror for trans individuals in my classrooms.
Trans and gender non-conforming folks had every right to respond to the seriousness of my bigoted behavior with an equally serious response – and that response is sometimes the most effective tool for putting an end to harm.
This doesn’t excuse maliciousness disguised as accountability, but it does explain why what you think is malicious may just be a necessary defense.
If you’re being called out, consider how much harm your action may have caused to help gauge whether you are being held accountable or punished.
There are many problems with call-out culture. But sometimes it’s necessary to hold people accountable in a way that might seem harsh. And it’s important that we distinguish between strong criticisms that are deserved and those that aren’t.
I believe “the cycle of call-out violence” can be challenged by ending our conflation of “person who did something wrong” with “bad person.” People on all sides need to be okay both with making and seeing mistakes in order to properly address them. The importance of the ability to self-reflect cannot be understated.
Being called out, sometimes even strongly, is par the course.
None of us have to be perfect activists – but we also should never expect to be received as such.
* I generally find the term “privilege” inadequate and sometimes counterproductive in describing what it’s supposed to describe. It doesn’t fully account for intersections of identity (e.g., does a trans woman who “passes” as a cisgender man have male privilege, even though being mistaken as male is also a violent experience?) and turns the conversation about oppressive power structures into one about what benefits the “privileged” person gets, rather than the harm they might cause. I use it here for simplicity’s sake.
Hari Ziyad is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a Brooklyn-based storyteller. They are the Editor in Chief of RaceBaitR, a space dedicated to imagining and working toward a world outside of the white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal capitalistic gaze, and their work has been featured on Gawker, The Guardian, Out, Ebony, Mic, Colorlines, Paste Magazine, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire, and The Each Other Project. They are also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can find them (mostly) ignoring racists on Twitter @RaceBaitR and Facebook.